“This is my ‘why,’” Carol Hart says as she shares a photo of her son, Master Sergeant David Cookingham Jr., who served in the military from 1991 to 2011 and passed away in 2015.
After her son’s passing, Carol learned of Wreaths Across America, a national program based out of Maine that works to honor fallen veterans by placing wreaths on their graves every Christmas season.
In the fall of 2019, Carol called to order a wreath for her son’s grave, only to find out that Evergreen Cemetery in Pine Plains, NY, was not a participating location with the program. “I just thought to myself, ‘Why shouldn’t Pine Plains be a participating location?’ It had to start somewhere, and it started with me,” she says.
Putting in the work
In order to get Evergreen Cemetery to be a participating location, Carol needed three things: first, the permission of the cemetery itself; second, a location coordinator to serve as the liaison between families and the Wreaths Across America organization; and third, a sponsorship group.
She quickly went to work. She received permission from the cemetery, got the American Legion Post #426 to sponsor the program, and willingly signed up to be the location coordinator. In October of 2020, Evergreen Cemetery was officially on the list of participating locations.
Over 500 veterans are buried in Evergreen Cemetery. Carol’s goal for the first year was to cover the 45 veterans’ graves in the Dutchess County Veterans Section at the cemetery, which is where her son’s grave is located. She ended up with a total of 105 wreaths, which was more than double what she had anticipated.
The second year, they were up to a total of 400 wreaths. Last year, they were able to cover every single veteran grave in Evergreen Cemetery, and this year, they will not only cover the veteran graves in Pine Plains, but they will cover approximately 100 veteran graves in Gallatin as well.
The work is not easy. Carol works year-round to fundraise and obtain sponsors to ensure that they get enough wreaths. With the help of her husband John, Carol has convinced local businesses to sponsor the program and even has 10-15 volunteers that work with her in the fall to ensure everything goes smoothly.
“Small towns are so good with their generosity,” she says. “We have a lot of support from the community, and we’re so grateful for that.”
The wreaths will be laid at the National Wreaths Across America Day Ceremony at Evergreen Ceremony on December 16. Each year, Wreaths Across America chooses a different theme for its ceremony. This year, the theme is “Serve and Succeed,” which is inspired by last year’s theme, “Find a Way to Serve,” and aims to emphasize the importance of service and its positive impact on people’s lives.
The overall mission is to remember the fallen, honor those who serve, and teach the next generation the value of freedom. The ceremony itself is written out by the Wreaths Across America organization, but can be altered based on how each location wants to change it.
Carol says that they try to do something a little different each year, including having the local boy scout troop lead the ceremony in the Pledge of Allegiance and having different people sing the national anthem.
Additionally, Ryan Orton has been instrumental since year two of the ceremony, when they decided to add music. He records the music from the Presbyterian Church in Pine Plains where he is the organist.
“We add what we think is appropriate,” she says. “Some locations try to keep their ceremonies to 15 minutes or a half hour. We try to keep it to an hour. I don’t think I can get everything that we want done in 15 minutes. We want to give the veterans the respect they deserve.”
At the beginning of the ceremony, they hang eight wreaths with flags to represent each branch of the military; Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines, POW/MIA, and the recently added Space Force.
The laying of the wreaths is ceremonial in its own way as well. Some families choose to lay their own wreaths, and Carol and her team of volunteers lay whatever wreaths are remaining at the end of the ceremony. They go row by row, gently placing wreaths on each grave and reading the names aloud.
Additionally, Carol says five veterans have passed away this year that she knows of. At this year’s ceremony, they will be including five vacant chairs with photos of the fallen veterans on each to honor them prior to the official laying of the wreaths.
While Carol tries to ensure that they have all of the veterans on their list, she notes that they always have extra wreaths. “If you call me and tell me that we missed someone, we get right out there and lay a wreath for them.”
The breakdown of the wreath
The wreath itself is a symbol of honor, respect, and victory. In addition, Carol shares that the ten balsam bouquets that comprise each wreath represent ten special qualities that are present in veterans: first, their belief in a greater good; second, their love for one another; third, their strength, work ethic, and character; fourth, their honesty and integrity; fifth, their humility, selflessness, and modesty; sixth, their ambitions and aspirations; seventh, their optimism for America; eighth, their concern for the future; ninth, their pride in their duties; and tenth, their hopes and dreams that didn’t always come true but “left them with no regrets.”
Additionally, the wreath materials themselves represent important elements to the veterans. Evergreens represent longevity and endurance, the red bow represents their great sacrifice, the forest scent represents purity and simplicity, and the circular shape represents eternity.
Some may think that Carol’s work ends after the holiday season, but on the contrary, her work ramps up in January. Wreaths Across America has what they call a “match” in January, which means that for every two wreaths ordered, it provides three free. Carol uses whatever leftover funds she has from the previous year to order wreaths during the match in order to get as many as possible.
“It’s a great program, and it really allows us to get so many more wreaths,” she says. “All of the funds that are left over at the end of the year go towards the match to cover part of the following years’ wreaths. I’m always campaigning for donations during the match period.”
In February, Wreaths Across America holds the Four Chaplains Memorial Service in the Balsam Valley Chapel. The service celebrates the four chaplains that guided soldiers to safety on the USAT Dorchester after it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1943. The chaplains gave away their own life jackets to save others and when they had saved as many lives as they could they “linked arms to pray and sing hymns as the Dorchester slipped beneath the waves.”
A few years ago, Carol and her husband made a trip up to Columbia Falls, ME, where Wreaths Across America is located. During that trip, they were able to visit the forest in Columbia Falls where the balsam trees are harvested to create the wreaths.
While there, they were able to participate in the Remembrance Tree Program. Wreaths Across America creates a dog tag based on the information that each family gives them about their veteran, and then families can take that dog tag out to the forest to find a tree where they can place the tag on the balsam of their choice.
“I did four for myself, and my husband did two for his family,” Carol says. “The most touching part of this program for me is knowing that in three years when the balsam trees tip, they’ll harvest them to make wreaths which could end up in any one of 4,000 participating locations for their ceremonies. It’s very full circle to be able to have this memorial as well.”
Wreaths Across America also gathers every Tuesday morning from 9am to 10am to raise the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance at the Freeport Flag Ladies Monument, which is located on Route 1 in Jonesboro, ME.
“It’s just a wonderful way to remember all who served,” Carol says. “Wreaths Across America has so many great programs and they’re always working to make sure they honor veterans the best way they can.”
Carol says they can always use more volunteers, particularly “tech-savvy” volunteers to help with social media and other forms of fundraising. “We’re always looking for new ways to fundraise and get into contact with people in the community,” Carol says.
Additionally, she thanks her husband for all he does to help her and the program overall. “He never hesitates to jump in and help, or try to accomplish some of the ‘crazy’ ideas I might have for the ceremony, even if it’s last minute.” •
To order a wreath, contact Carol directly: “The best thing to do is to call me, because many times, families have questions, and I can always help with that.” To order a wreath ($17) or inquire about volunteering, you can get in touch with Carol via her email, firstname.lastname@example.org or give her a call at (518) 398-7056.